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Matt Christie pays tribute to Bert Cooper, 1966-2019

EXACTLY what made “Smokin” Bert Cooper so special is hard to put your finger on. In a sport decorated by heroes who gave their all to the prize ring, Cooper came along and seduced a generation of fans while rarely showing the kind of dedication that is a prerequisite of success. In truth, he blew pretty much every chance he had, the biggest of which were not so much earned but gifted, and yet, when news of his death from cancer at the age of 53 broke last week, the boxing world, as it always does for the special ones, united to toast his memory. It’s tempting to label Cooper an underachiever because he might have achieved more. But if you examine his history and taste for the dark side, this man – who would quit in the ring and frequently enter it despite being in no condition to do so – went above and beyond any realistic expectation. He would go on binges for days, hoovering up cocaine, chasing hookers while drinking bars dry, barely kicking his vices for long enough to perform anywhere near his best. Yet Cooper was not wracked with guilt about his failures until he understood the complexity of regret in his later years, so to label him a troubled fistic genius – as boxing often does to those who lack discipline – would be untrue. One senses there would always have been something to steer Bert down the wrong path.

The fallibility of the man only heightened his appeal. His everyman name gathered pace when it was launched by his Smokin’ sobriquet, causing it to gallop off ring announcers’ tongues like a ski jumper taking flight. Bert – whose record reads 38-25 (31) and stretched from 1984 to 2012 – landed in a great era and, against all odds, very nearly turned it upside down. There are always pivotal moments in a career as long and winding as Cooper’s when things could have gone a different way. The Philadelphian’s most memorable came against Evander Holyfield in an unlikely shot at the world heavyweight title in November 1991. The champion needed an opponent at short notice and Cooper, always on call at the heavyweight gate, stepped in to save the Atlanta show. An outsider of Buster Douglas proportions (he was a 22-1 shot), Cooper – a late substitute for Francesco Damiani who had stepped in for Mike Tyson – was losing his way in the third until he shuffled inside, scored with a zipping overhand right and hooked the champion with all his might. Holyfield, unbeaten and unsteady, tumbled into the ropes and instinctively clung to them to prevent himself from falling. It would be the first time the great champion took a count.

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